Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Surplus Self-Esteem

I normally dislike generalizing about either conservatives or liberals, but several recent articles have gotten under my skin enough to make an exception. So here goes: In an article today that otherwise makes some good points on the benefits of presenting intelligent design in the classroom, Jay Mathews of the Washington Post drops a revealing side comment:
I am as devout a Darwinist as anybody. I read all the essays on evolution by the late Stephen Jay Gould, one of my favorite writers. The God I worship would, I think, be smart enough to create the universe without, as Genesis alleges, violating His own observable laws of conservation of matter and energy in a six-day construction binge.
A few days ago Howard Dean explained yet again that Democrats' electoral failures result from their hyper-developed intelligence (Powerline has a good post on this):
One major reason his party lost the 2004 race to the "brain-dead" Republicans is that it has a "tendency to explain every issue in half an hour of detail," Dean told the semi-annual meeting of Democrats Abroad...
Last month Jonathan Chait of The New Republic posited that if God came down to settle our political disputes and showed that conservatives were right most liberals would humbly accept His judgment; but if His judgment favored liberal positions most economic conservatives would heartily resist (interesting qualifier--I guess even Chait doesn't believe that social conservatives would dis' God if He arrived in full glory to revoke a commandment or two):

Imagine that God were to appear on Earth for the unlikely purpose of settling, once and for all, our disputes over economic policy. And suppose that, to my enormous surprise, he announced that every empirical claim advanced by conservatives was correct. Cutting taxes produces such great economic growth that even the poor benefit. Privatizing or eliminating social programs like Medicare and Social Security will cause the elderly to save more money and enjoy higher living standards. Slashing regulations, by eliminating unintended side effects, actually does a better job helping those whom the regulations were intended to help than the regulations themselves. Suppose that God presented these conclusions so convincingly--if his stature alone did not suffice--that everybody immediately accepted them as truth.

How would liberals respond? No doubt by rethinking and abandoning nearly all their long-held positions. Liberalism, after all, claims to produce certain outcomes: more prosperity and security, especially for the poor and middle classes; a cleaner environment; safer foods and drugs; and so on. If it were proved beyond a doubt that liberal policies fail to produce those outcomes--or even, as conservatives often claim, that such policies hurt their intended beneficiaries--then their rationale would disappear. It may be hard to imagine liberals advocating capital gains tax cuts as a way to lift up the working stiff. But that's just because there's no evidence to show they do. If the evidence were to change, so would the liberal mindset. The point is that liberalism has no justification other than the belief that liberal policies produce beneficial outcomes.

Now imagine the opposite were to happen. God appears in order to affirm liberal precepts: Current tax levels barely affect economic incentives, social programs provide tremendous economic security at modest cost to growth, and most regulations achieve their intended effects without producing undue distortions. Would economic conservatives likewise abandon their views? Some certainly would, but a great many would not. Economic conservatism, unlike liberalism, would survive having all its empirical underpinnings knocked out from beneath it.

(Jonah Goldberg offers a partial response to Chait here.)

After I read Mathews article my first thought was to make a few smart comments and move on (Well, sheesh, if liberals are as smart as God no wonder us common folk have trouble understanding them!). But these juxtaposed quotes are emblematic of the mindset that prevents establishment liberals from connecting with many Americans and demonstrate astonishing intellectual arrogance. The first part of that mindset, which prevents liberals from speaking believably about God and religion, may never be overcome. Many liberals are simply irreligious, but for many others such as Mathews and Dean (remember the bike path?) it comes down to this: They prefer a god created to serve them over the God they were created to serve. This difference is so fundamental to one's understanding of mankind's place in the universe that it itself underpins a host of other conservative vs. liberal disagreements. In Mathew's church it may be quite normal to consider God a fool not to agree with you. In conservative Christian or Jewish circles this would be tantamount to blasphemy. The other part of this mindset, to believe that one's political positions are the result of an inexorable and comprehensive calculus whose brilliance lesser minds cannot grasp, points to a fundamental misunderstanding of the way most people--even many intelligent, well-informed people--evolve their mature political positions. And I use the word "evolve" very deliberately. For most people don't take a very reasonable path at all. Rather, they journey through a series of formative life experiences and accumulations of half-knowledge that come to shape their most deeply held values in a process that is more like the grinding of driftwood by the surf than the purposeful assemblage of a complete and intricate structure. Most of us know very intelligent people who span the range of political ideology. So the answer is clearly not that one political group is more or less intelligent than another. Instead, at the heart of most political disagreements are differing value systems and assumptions about human nature. That's what's so troubling about articles such as Chait's. He claims that liberals are pragmatic and dispassionate about their politics while economic conservatives are pinned to an inflexible value system that they would not discard, even under duress from the Almighty! After the vitriol spewed at President Bush over the last four years what else is there to say except, "Huh!?". The self-proclaimed reality-based community should realize that reality is too complex for any of us to fully understand and predict. The scope of human knowledge is too great for any of us to be an expert on more than a few small slices. Is it too much then to ask a little more humility of liberals? After all, the principles of economic conservatives that Chait derides flow from an acknowledgment that the world is too complex to model at the macro level, and from a recognition that our best chance of predicting the consequences of public policy is to analyze the incentives of individual actors. Is this method perfect? Of course not. But it parallels methods used successfully in many of the hard science and engineering disciplines such as fluid dynamics--where we can't stand on the beach and predict which way the next wave will swirl but can model the interactions of water molecules well enough to design more efficient turbines and hulls. Obviously human motivations are more complex than those of water molecules, but they can still be usefully measured and modeled.

Perhaps it is true as some have suggested that liberals are far less likely to suffer exposure to conflicting views than conservatives because of the media they consume or the people they work with. Whatever the source of this mindset it grows exceedingly tiresome. The constant refrains of "liberals are smarter" and "Republicans just got lucky this time" begin to sound like my 10 year old son who insists that I "get lucky" every time I beat him at Madden NFL 2005. That excuse becomes less and less plausible with every defeat. :)

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